Calvinism and Arminianism are commonly presented as the only two options regarding soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Either 1) Jesus’ death sufficiently atoned for the sins of a specific number of people elected by God to salvation (as in Calvinism) or 2) Jesus’ death made salvation possible for each and every person who decides to believe in him (as in Arminianism). Arminianism’s “decision theology” is refuted by many biblical passages which clearly show that man is not able to contribute to his salvation. Given the failure of Arminianism, Calvinism would seem to be clear answer. However, there is a third option not commonly presented; that which is held by the Lutherans. Within Lutheranism it is held that Jesus’s death sufficiently atoned for the sins of each and every person, yet not all will be saved (thus Lutheranism avoids universal reconciliation). How is this possible?, and is the Lutheran position more favorable to Scripture than the Calvinist position? In this essay I intend to present the Calvinist and Lutheran soteriological views, their critiques of each other’s positions, and an analysis of these critiques.
Calvinism gets its TULIP acronym in a summary of soteriological doctrinal points contra the Arminian position which emerged within the Reformed world in the 17th century. This TULIP acronym is derived from the so-called “5-points of Calvinism” (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints). Of particular interest in viewing the differences between Calvinism and Lutheranism is the 3rd point, limited atonement. This Calvinist doctrine teaches that Jesus’s death atoned for the sins of a limited, or particular, group of people. Limited atonement is rejected in the Lutheran framework which instead teaches that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of each and every person in the world without exception.
The Calvinist View
In Chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Calvinist view of soteriology is presented: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.”
Those for whom Jesus died are the same whom God has predestinated, the same whom Christ has redeemed, and the same whom have been given faith by the Holy Spirit. Thus, there is a one-to-one correspondence. Likewise, Jesus did not die for those who are foreordained to everlasting death, the reprobate. His death was not for their salvation. They are not his sheep, his people. They are not redeemed and they are not given faith.
Why are some saved and not others? It is God’s choice that makes the difference, not man’s ability.
How can one be assured of their salvation? To know one is elect of God one must look to the fruits of his life as evidence. “This is how we know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus died.” – 1 John 2:5-6
The Lutheran View
Lutherans, like Calvinists, are monergists — they believe that salvation comes solely by the grace of God without any contribution from man. The will of man is not free but is in bondage to sin. Yet, Lutherans do not affirm a limited atonement. In Lutheranism Jesus died for each and every person without exception. Yet, the Lutherans do not affirm a universal reconciliation as many people will yet go to hell as a result of their sinfulness.
The Calvinists view the deciding factor in whether one is saved to be the will of God and the Arminians view the deciding factor in whether one is saved to be the will of man. Lutheran’s do not posit either of these answers, preferring to allow a tension to remain. It is in the direction of predestination to heaven in which the Lutherans agree with the Calvinists that those who are elect are saved exclusively by the Grace of God and not the decision of man. It is in the direction of damnation to hell in which the Lutheran agree with the Arminians that those who do not believe in Jesus for their salvation are eternally punished for their sins. These two beliefs are held in tension, or as some Lutherans term it, “paradox.” As “paradox” is often synonymous with “contradiction”, and Lutheranism does not affirm there to be an actual contradiction, it is best to use the term “tension” to describe these teachings. This tension is called the “Crux Theologorum”, or the Cross of the Theologians because it is the most difficult issue for a theologian to understand and the point at which many trip up, choosing either the Calvinist or Arminian position.
Why are some saved and not others? The Lutheran view is that Scripture does not answer this question and thus we do not know. Perhaps also, this question should be broken into two answerable questions. 1. Why are some saved? Answer: it is fully because of the grace of God in his eternal plan to for Jesus to die for sinners and give them faith. 2. Why are others not saved? Answer: Because they are sinners in rebellion from God. They deserve hell because God who is holy will not have them in his presence.
How can one be assured of their salvation? By looking to Christ crucified for forgiveness of sins the believer is assured of their salvation solely because of God’s redemptive work. Even faith is a gift from God, not credited to the ability of believer.
The Calvinist Critique of the Lutheran View
Lutheranism seems to require something in addition to Christ’s death to finally distinguish those who are saved from those are not – the Preaching the Gospel of Word and Sacrament brings the reward to the believer for Christ’s death. In Calvinism “it is finished” at Christ’s death. Salvation is complete at Christ’s death on the cross for the elect. The preaching of the Gospel of Word and Sacrament is follow up work – the working out of God’s plan.
Lutheran’s claim a distinction between the Magisterial and Ministerial uses of reason. The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. But does Calvinism fall guilty of using magisterial reason? Is Calvinism judging scripture? The method of Calvinism is to use Scripture to understand Scripture. It is not primarily man’s judgment, but Scripture’s judgment employed by theologians for understanding. The conclusions of Calvinism are no more using magisterial reason than the Lutheran conclusions which equally employ Scripture for their understanding, albeit with different conclusions.
Yet, the Lutheran conclusions are not easy to understand. They claim the Bible teaches paradox or tension, but the Bible never claims “here is a paradox” or “here is a tension which you cannot understand.” Rather, the Bible is a revelation from God of intelligible matters. How can Lutherans be so confident in the inability to understand? Are they not claiming to understand, but just in a different way? Why choose an understanding that leaves questions unanswered when the Calvinist system provides an understanding without unanswered questions?
The Lutheran Critique of the Calvinist View
The Calvinist’s focus is taken off of Jesus’ redemptive work and placed onto the election decree of God. Thus he must ask, “How do I know if I’m one of the chosen, the elect?” The focus of the Arminian likewise is diverted from what Jesus did and onto his decision for Christ. Thus he must ask, “Did I adequately decide for Jesus?” Neither the Calvinist nor the Arminian can simply look to the cross and their Savior for assurance. The work of Christ on the cross for the Calvinist is only helpful if he’s one of the elect – and he doesn’t know that for sure. Likewise, the work of Christ on the cross is helpful for the Arminian only if he properly decides for Jesus and chooses to follow him with sufficient faithfulness – and of that he can never be quite certain. So, since neither can look to Christ for assurance, they must look someplace else. And oddly enough, both will end up looking in the same place. Both know from the Scripture that people are saved by faith, and that saving faith produces good works. So they end up looking for the proof of their election (Calvinist) or the sincerity of their decision for Jesus (Arminian) in their own lives. The question then becomes: “Do I see ample evidence of the fruits of faith in my life?” Or, stated another way, “Am I doing enough good works to confirm my faith?”
Unfortunately, there’s no comfort there. Such an examination will always lead either to despair or to self-righteousness. Both have made the assurance of saving faith a question of their subjective evaluations of their own works.
Fortunately for us, assurance of salvation is found only in the objective Gospel. By leaving the question unresolved to human satisfaction, God forces our faith to rest on what Christ has done for us. So, when struggling with the question, “How do I know for sure that I am saved?” we can boldly answer, “Because Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose again for my justification.” Letting the paradox stand directs the doubting soul to Christ and his work alone where it belongs.
The Calvinist focuses on the ultimate cause of salvation – election. The Lutheran focuses on the proximate causes – Jesus’ death for those who come to believe and man’s sin for those who do not believe. Focusing on the ultimate cause gives us confidence in God’s sovereignty; that he will work his plan to its conclusion. Focusing on the proximate causes gives the “Law and the Gospel” – the two messages that are needed to curb sinners from sin and bring hope to the downtrodden, respectively. The ultimate cause is almost never discussed in Lutheranism, the proximate cause is unfortunately discussed only secondarily to election within Calvinism. An emphasis on teaching both the ultimate cause and proximate cause is necessary for a full understanding. However, this does not answer the question at issue – whether Jesus died for each and every person without exception or for only the elect.
A part of the standard Lutheran critique of Calvinism is that “they’re forcing verses into a system.” I don’t this critique holds up though. The Calvinist method, called the “analogy of faith”, is to “let Scripture interpret Scripture” or “let the easy passages shed light on the more difficult ones.” The verses (at least the ones I’ve checked into) that the Lutherans point to contra Calvinism have very good alternative understandings in Calvinism. Thus, I don’t see a “twisting of Scripture to fit a system” in Calvinism.
I do think Calvinists have a good point against Lutheranism when they say scripture does not explicitly teach “tension” or “paradox.” The bible never says “I present to you a paradox which you can’t understand.” It may present multiple truths that we cannot understand, but it is the truths that it is presenting, not the lack of understanding. (In fact, to “reveal” something we can’t understand is not much of a “revelation” unless it is one to show us our own feebleness.) So whether the Lutheran’s like it or not, they are equally fitting doctrines into a system, a system of “tensions.”
Lutheranism self-admittedly has it’s problem with logical systemization. I don’t see this as a problem though. It would be a problem if it taught contraction, but it doesn’t.
Thus, I’ve rejected a major argument against Calvinism (it’s forcing into a system) and a major argument against Lutheranism (it’s lack of system). In place of these arguments, I believe one should look to Scripture for the answer. This requires a proper hermeneutics. In all honesty, I haven’t yet studied hermeneutics sufficiently to understand the various approaches.
The Calvinist interpretation is that soteriology passages which refer to “all men” or “the world” are best understood as meaning “both Jew and Gentile.” In the view of Calvinism, God has elected to save some of the Jews and some of the Gentiles. When the New Testament writers refer to “all” it is an emphasis on the Gentiles being within the salvation of God. In many cases it is clear in the context that this is the correct interpretation.
There are other passages which evidence a particular nature of God’s choosing of man. This would seem to contradict the Lutheran position and favor the Calvinist one. However, if “many” is looked at as the results of salvation, the Lutheran paradigm is upheld.
It ultimately comes down to this question: Can biblical passages on soteriology be harmonized into a comprehensive system which can be understood by man with doing adequate justice to the passages of Scripture?